“The Parable of the Tenants”

Matthew 21:33-46

June 26, 2005

 

Text Comment

 

v.33     No Jew would fail to recognize in this story a picture of the relationship between the Lord and Israel.  In Isaiah 5:1-2, for example, God is once again the owner of the vineyard and Israel the vineyard itself, yielding bad fruit.  In this case the vineyard is the people of Israel and the tenants are their religious leaders.  [Morris, 539] There in Isaiah 5 God also made a great investment in a vineyard – he did everything necessary to make his vineyard fruitful – but was disappointed in the return.  Other OT prophets deploy the same imagery.  Remember now, this is the second parable in a series of three, all spoken against the Jewish religious establishment.  Like the other two – the two sons and the wedding banquet – it teaches the sinfulness of the religious leadership and the impending judgment of God against them.

 

v.34     The tenant farmers would have owed the landlord a fixed proportion of the harvest.  If we are to press the details of the story, the landlord would not have expected much income yet.  The vineyard would take some years of cultivation to begin producing wine in significant quantities, but the landlord would have asked for some payment as a way of establishing his title to the vineyard and its production.  If he let the years pass without claiming his due, title could pass to the tenants.  We read of that stipulation in the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish laws from this period of history.

 

v.37     Clearly the story represents the Lord’s repeated appeals to his people through his prophets and finally through his Son.  Israel has remained stubbornly unwilling to repent.  Here Jesus has thrown all caution to the wind and is claiming publicly to be the Son of God.  He knows they are plotting his death; he knows that they will succeed in killing him – indeed, he will let them succeed because he came to give his life a ransom for many – and here he tells them what is really going on and what will befall them as a result.

 

v.39     Scholars have argued about how the tenants could possibly have thought that they could have secured title to the property by killing the owner’s son and have proposed this explanation or that in keeping with commercial and legal customs of the day.  Probably, however, we are not intended to explain their reaction in any other way than that of a defiant rejection of the owner’s demand.  It is a parable, after all, as Jesus said at the outset in v. 33.  In any case, the number of servants sent first and then the sending of the landlord’s son indicate the patience with which the Lord had dealt with his rebellious people, giving them many opportunities to repent and do the right thing.

 

            You will notice that the son was thrown out of the vineyard and killed.  Jesus would be taken outside of Jerusalem to be crucified; perhaps more to the point, he would be rejected by the people and it would be their rejection that would make his execution possible.  As John has it at the beginning of his Gospel, “He came to his own, but his own did not receive him…”

 

            But the tenants had not reckoned with the owner of the vineyard.  He was not someone to allow this outrage to go unpunished.

 

v.41     Remember how King David, when confronted by Nathan the prophet after his adultery and murder, unwittingly pronounced his own sentence; so too these religious leaders.  They are, unbeknownst to themselves, pronouncing their own judgment.  They will suffer judgment and the gospel will go to the Gentiles instead.  They will lose their favored place as the people of God.

 

v.42     The introduction to the citation, “Have you never read in the Scriptures…” indicates that these priests and elders should have known better.  In its many uses in the New Testament, this text from Ps. 118 is taken as a reference to Jesus, the Son of God, and his rejection by his own people, and his subsequent vindication as the Messiah and the Savior of the world by his resurrection from the dead. A stone the builders thought they could not use, it was in their view unsuitable for building, became the most important stone in the entire building.  The meaning is clear. In Acts 4:11 Peter, speaking to the Sanhedrin – certainly to some of the very same men who heard Jesus tell this parable of the tenants – said that Jesus is “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.”  Peter puts a “you” where Psalm 118 has a “the,” and by doing so he personalizes the application and makes it clear that the text applies to these very Jewish religious leaders who had rejected and then murdered the Lord of glory.  The stone they had rejected was now the capstone of the house of God, the stone on which the entire edifice depends.

 

v.43     There has always been a kingdom of God in the world, but that kingdom, which had historically been centered in Israel and among the Jews, would now embrace another nation, a people, as we will learn, called out from every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth. This new people will produce fruit, which is precisely what the Jewish church had not been doing.  Remember that was the lesson of the withering of the fig tree we noticed several Lord’s Days back.  Jesus is condemning the church of his day for its failure to produce true fruit. The fruit, of course, is faith in Christ and the life of service that comes from that faith.

 

v.44     There is some question as to whether v. 44 is original to Matthew’s Gospel as it is missing in some early manuscripts of the Gospel.  It is found as part of Luke’s record of this same parable in Luke 20:18 and may have been taken from there.  The distinction seems to be that if you fall on this stone, stumble and fall, you will be broken, but the broken man may still be healed; there may be mercy for him yet.  These Jews who have so far rejected the Messiah may suffer for that rejection but there may be time for them to realize their mistake, repent, and put their faith in Christ.  But those upon whom the judgment of God finally falls for their rejection of his Son will be pulverized.  There will be no such opportunity to repent for them.

 

v.45     Interestingly, the priests, who were Sadducees, and the scribes who were Pharisees did not get along with one another.  They represented two very different theological and political parties. But their mutual hatred for Jesus overcame their other differences.

 

v.46     The religious leaders knew exactly what Jesus was saying but they were stymied by the fact that the crowds had not yet turned on Jesus and were still enthusiastically supporting him.

 

Many of you will have seen the article in the Tacoma News Tribune of June 11th on Antony Flew and his change of heart.  The article was by Richard Ostling, for many years senior correspondent for Time magazine specializing in religion and now senior religion correspondent for the Associated Press.  It was from the Associated Press that the News Tribune took the article.  Antony Flew, as some of you will remember, has been perhaps the most prominent and outspoken academic atheist of the last half of the 20th century.  He was to my generation what Richard Dawkins of Oxford University is to the present generation.  Flew is a professional philosopher who taught at various universities in Great Britain, notably Oxford and, my alma mater, the University of Aberdeen, as well as for short stints as a visiting professor at a number of North American universities.  He is not only a widely published author, but a gadabout who has been willing to enter the fray against religious belief in public debates, on television and radio programs, and in the press. 

 

A few years ago, if you remember, he debated Gary Habermas, an American evangelical scholar, on the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. Flew, of course, argued that there was inadequate evidence to prove that Jesus actually rose from the dead.  In fact, Flew made a career of arguing against the possibility of miracles of any kind, much less such a miracle as the resurrection. Christians took some comfort from the fact that Flew was soundly beaten in that debate.  The university philosophy professors and professional debate judges – most of whom were not Christians – who scored the debate voted Habermas the winner by a count of 7-2 with one draw.  At any rate, the English speaking world is well used to hearing Antony Flew pour scorn on the faith of the vast majority of this world’s population which believes in the existence of God and, still more, on the faith of those who believe in the Bible and take its message about Christ and salvation to be entirely true.

 

So you can imagine the stir, even the shock in some circles, when Prof. Flew came out in a recent book for belief in god.  It was as if Hugh Hefner had come out for modesty and chastity.  But that is what Flew has done: contradicted his own life’s work.  He publicly retracted his long held atheism and argued that it was no longer possible to believe in a godless universe given what is now known about the astonishing complexity of nature, the evidence of intelligent design in nature, and the mathematical impossibility of accounting for nature as we know it as an accident.  The facts are in, he argues in his book, and it is no longer possible to believe that unintelligent processes acting over time could produce by chance, as an accident, the world as we know it.  He says that he is not even unwilling to admit that if such a God exists, as he now believes he must, he might well communicate to mankind.  He might employ some means – such as the Bible for example – to reveal himself to human beings.  That is possible, Prof. Flew now allows.

 

But in that article Prof. Flew was also quoted as saying that, while he now found belief in the God of the Bible credible, he did not himself find it convincing.  And he gave two reasons why, though now believing in the existence of a personal God of wisdom and power sufficient to account for the world as we know it, he did not believe in the Christian God.  First, he said, is the problem of evil in the world.  A good God, he reasons, would not allow the world he has made to be overcome by evil as this world has been.  Second, he said, he couldn’t imagine God punishing people in hell.  He said that the idea of hell suggested that God must be like some “oriental despot” and he couldn’t believe in a God like that.  These are hardly new objections.  These have been some of the reasons people have long given for not believing in the Bible or the God of the Bible.

 

Now all of that is exceedingly interesting.  Prof. Flew now admits that the world and everything in it cannot any longer be explained without reference to an intelligent, personal God.  There is a God, he now says, who must have designed this world.  And given the astonishing complexity and perfection of that design, this God must be extraordinarily wise and powerful.  That is his argument.  We agree with that, obviously, and are very glad for him that he has realized the error of his atheism and proud of him that he has admitted it publicly. 

 

But the Christian immediately observes that if there is such a God who made the world, then, surely, it is no longer possible to believe that the moral nature of human life, our inability to avoid seeing the world and human behavior in terms of right and wrong, our determination to see evil behavior punished, the existence of the conscience which constantly takes our own behavior under review and passes judgment, something that utterly distinguishes us from all other creatures – I say, surely this is as amazing a fact of human existence, this is as remarkable and as inexplicable feature of human life as are the astonishing features of natural life that science has done so much recently to discover and describe.

 

Our point is that, if we cannot explain DNA without God, then we cannot explain man as a moral creature either.  We cannot explain this most fundamental reality of human life:  that man is inescapably a moral creature, a captive to his moral nature, bound to see his life and the life of everyone else in moral terms, in terms of right and wrong, of good and bad, of righteousness and wickedness, of justice and injustice.  Isn’t it fascinating that virtually all television programs nowadays are about criminal justice – nabbing the bad guy and seeing that he is punished for his crime – and that the great use of DNA is in the pursuit of justice.

 

The capacity of DNA to store information vastly exceeds that of any other known system, including the remarkable computer systems developed in recent years by scientists and engineers.  DNA is a system so breathtakingly efficient that all the information needed to specify the design of an organism as complex as man – all the materials that make him up, all his chemistry, all his parts, his organs, his systems, all their working together, weighs less than a few thousand millionths of a gram.  The information necessary to specify the design of the approximately one billion species of organisms which have ever existed on this planet, could be held in a teaspoon and there would still be room left for all the information in every book ever written.

 

No wonder Antony Flew now agrees that systems of this astonishing complexity and perfection could not have come to pass by accident.  We can now calculate the probability of such a thing happening and the calculations have been done and it is simply impossible that DNA is an accident.  Antony Flew is now doing nothing but stating the obvious.

 

But if we cannot explain man’s DNA or the breathtaking complexity of the cell or the astonishing powers of the eye without recourse to a being of limitless intelligence and of power beyond our understanding, then why on earth would we not accept, why must we not accept that the moral nature of human life, that man’s spiritual life, does not come from this same God?

 

Is it not frankly unthinkable that there is a God who made the world, who made human life to be what it is, but that he had nothing to do with the strange and wonderful fact that human beings are moral creatures and cannot escape their moral nature?  This fact about human beings – their morality, their capacity for moral judgment, their inevitable tendency to see everything in terms of right and wrong – that fact about human nature must also come from this God who made the world and who gave existence to human beings.  Man’s moral nature, in itself, this nature that gives such nobility to human life, is surely as inexplicable apart from the infinite personal God as is the astonishing power of his genetic system to store and use information, or the vast number of indescribably complex and varied biochemical machines that make his bodily life possible, or the perfection of a bird’s wing, or the extraordinary way in which this planet of ours is, against all astrophysical expectation, congenial to life.

 

There is more that the existence of an infinite personal God is required to explain than simply the breathtaking complexity of physical nature.  If God is necessary to explain that then he is just as necessary to explain the moral and spiritual nature of human life.  Mankind is the supreme life of the world and it is his life supremely that must be explained, must be understood.  All the more as even Prof. Flew now knows, that life came from God. And if we can’t explain the perfection of his body without recourse to God, we certainly can’t explain his mental and spiritual life either.  Of course, that is precisely what the Bible teaches.  The Bible teaches us that the wonders of our physical life, the astonishing powers of our bodies, are the work of God our creator.  We are, the Psalmist says, “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  But the Bible goes on to explain what also must be explained about us:  we are the persons that we are, the spiritual creatures in relation to one another, the moral creatures that we are, human life is the moral existence that it is, because we are made in the image of the infinite personal God who cares deeply about right and wrong, whose very nature it is to be good, holy, and just.  We are moral because we have been created to be like God in a certain way and to have fellowship with him.

 

But, and this is also the teaching of the Bible, man is in rebellion against God.  He cannot escape his moral nature, but he has corrupted it.  He does evil; his powers of moral judgment are perverted.  He knows what is good but doesn’t do it.  He does evil and, because he is a moral creature, he seeks to justify himself in doing so. This too is a fact of human existence that must be explained.  It is, indeed, a more important fact of human life than DNA or eyesight, or the ability of blood to clot. Man has received his life from God but he has rebelled against the God who gave him this marvelous life. Surely that explains as much about the world as we know it as does the divine intelligence that must have created DNA.

 

What makes all of this so interesting this morning is that we have in this parable of the talents both the things that Prof. Flew supposes disprove the existence of the Christian god.  We have men doing great evil – indeed, murdering the Son of God – and we have the promise of their doom, their punishment for their sins.  Prof. Flew says that he doesn’t believe in the Christian god because he doesn’t think the living and true God would allow so much evil in the world.  And – there is some inconsistency in Prof. Flew’s thinking – there being so much evil in the world, he doesn’t think the living and true God would punish that evil so severely.  Surely the Christian will reply:  “You are trying to have your cake and eat it too.”  You can have one argument or the other, but you can’t have both. You can’t deny the existence of the God of the Bible because there is so much evil in the world and then deny the existence of the God of the Bible because he punishes evil so severely.  If there is so much evil in the world that you can’t believe in the Bible’s God because of it, surely God would be likely to punish evil so great and punish it severely.  On the other hand, if you can’t believe that God would punish evil, then can there really be enough evil in the world to call the Bible’s God’s existence into question?  Either there isn’t that much evil, so there’s no need to punish it severely, or there is too much evil and there is a great need to punish it.  And that failure to reckon with the existence of evil and its punishment is the continuing problem with Prof. Flew’s thinking.  We hope he will come to admit a mistake on this point as he has on the existence of God himself.

 

What Prof. Flew doesn’t see, what he doesn’t yet understand is the terrible, the life or death battle between good and evil that has for so long been waged in this world.  He doesn’t understand that the Son of God was sent into this world to secure its salvation and that human beings murdered him.  He doesn’t appreciate either the monumental evil that human beings have done or the price that Jesus Christ, God’s son, paid to put that evil right.  He does not realize how much God has loved the world or how viciously men have resisted that love.

 

There was a landlord who planted a vineyard.  He not only planted it but provided for it everything necessary to make it a profitable, wine-producing farm.  He surrounded the vineyard with a wall, built a watchtower to protect his grapes from being eaten by animals or stolen by human beings.  It was his vineyard.  He bought it, planted it, and provided for it.  He gave some tenant farmers the opportunity to earn their living by working his vineyard for him.  It was a privilege to work for such an owner and in such a vineyard.  But when the landlord sent his servants to collect what was rightfully his, they beat the first, killed another, and stoned the third.  These tenants were thugs, pure and simple. The landlord might well have dealt severely with those tenants when they beat the first servant he sent.  But he was patient.  He might have grown angry and resorted to violence when the tenants mistreated and even killed other servants that he sent.  But this landlord was patient and forgiving.  He wanted his tenants to do the right thing.  He gave them every opportunity.  He finally sent his own son, his only son, in hopes that the tenants would see the error of their ways and repent of what they had done and give the landlord his due.  But they murdered his son.

 

This is not a little story that Jesus told for the amusement of his hearers.  The priests and Pharisees fully understood that.  That is why they hated him for telling this parable.  Jesus was giving a history of the world.  He was describing God’s love for his people and their rebellion against him. He was giving an account of God’s much-tried patience toward his people and their abuse of his kindness, their spurning of his offers to forgive their wrongs if only they would repent of their sins and submit their lives to him.  This is a little story that tells the tale of God’s compassion and man’s ungrateful rebellion.  Of God’s patience and man’s vicious unwillingness to bow to his Creator.  Of God’s gift of his son for man’s salvation and of man’s murder of that Son.

 

There is great evil in this world.  The history of this world is the history of man’s rebellion against God and God’s gracious effort to win man back.  And because God is holy, there is a great punishment reserved for those who persist in doing evil.  God has made a way of escape from that punishment – the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, God’s son – but man must avail himself of that deliverance.

 

What Prof. Flew has seen and what changed his mind was the glory of man.  His astonishing life and his breathtaking powers.  What he has not yet seen clearly or reckoned with is the shame of man.  His foolish rebellion against the God who gave him such an exalted life.  Prof. Flew saw things in the world that he knew could not be explained as accidents.  Only an infinite, personal God could account for the world and for human beings as we know them to be.  But it is also true, indeed just as true that only man in sin and in rebellion against the God who made him explains the world or mankind as we also know them to be.  That is what the parable of the tenants teaches us.  There is great good in this world – God’s mercy to men – and great evil – man’s rebellion against God.  You don’t understand the world, or your place in the world until you understand that. There is a struggle, a battle, a contest between God and his rebellious creatures. It is much more important to understand that than to understand how DNA works or the eye or the wing of bird.  That contest can have but one conclusion.  The God who made DNA and who imprinted his moral nature upon every human being will have the last word. Those who rebel must, at last, come to judgment.  It is not only what the Bible teaches, what Jesus taught, but what any reasonable person must believe. But know this: it is not too late.

 

Jesus’ parable is very stern.  It is full of warning.  It sounds of doom.  But do you know that some of these men to whom the Lord first told this parable, would later come to understand exactly what he was saying and would not only admit that Jesus had told the truth about them but would repent and believe in Jesus Christ?  They couldn’t see it at first, the Lord’s parable angered and offended them when they first hear it, but later they realized the truth of what he had said.  They were rebels, they had rejected God’s repeated offers of grace and mercy, and they had, God forgive them, crucified the Son of God.  But when they realized that, and confessed it to God as their great sin, he forgave them.  They were among the “many priests” who, we read in the early chapters of the book of Acts, became Christians soon after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. God gave them new life even after all they had done to Jesus his Son.

 

It is true: he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces and he upon whom it falls will be crushed.  There is evil in man’s rebellion against God and his refusal to accept the gift of Jesus Christ.  But the Lord of grace and mercy stands always ready to receive those who admit their rebellion, repent of it, and turn to Jesus for forgiveness and new life.  We hope and pray that Prof. Flew will come to those convictions before it is too late, and that any of you not yet followers of Christ will hear his voice and follow him.